Maryland Grows

What’s a vegetable garden worth?

This year we set aside a 10×10 foot plot at the Derwood Demo Garden as the Grow It Eat It Garden. We planted “typical” backyard vegetable crops, harvested and weighed the results, and made an attempt to calculate the value of the produce based on grocery store prices, as another data point in the continuing debate over whether it’s reasonable to declare that having your own vegetable garden is a great way to save money. Have we come to any definite conclusions? Not sure. But here’s the data. First, have some beans.

(Kentucky Wonder pole beans on the left, Masai bush beans on the right. I am a big fan of Masai now – nice little compact plants with a huge yield. The pole beans pulled the teepee over; what else can I say?)

My previous post on the totals through July showed we’d harvested $153 worth of produce. Here’s the update, August through October:

Tomatoes: 19 lbs
Zucchini: 3 lbs (our one plant succumbed to mildew and squash bugs)
Peppers: 6.5 lbs
Basil: 5.5 lbs
Beans: 27.5 lbs (yes, seriously)
Mesclun: 1/2 lb

My estimated total value for these crops: $234. So that’s $387 for the year.

Notes and caveats:

As I’ve said before, the demo garden is not your home garden. We work once a week, occasionally more often, sometimes less often due to weather. We can’t always keep up with harvesting and so some produce is wasted, and we can’t always keep up with pest and disease management. I wish we could be there every day inspecting plants for damage as you should in home gardens, but since we are all volunteers it’s just not possible. And by the same token we are not as efficient as we should be in planting succession crops; we should have had some fall crops in that garden and just didn’t get to it (aside from the pitiful harvest of mesclun). So a home garden ought to be more productive.

The price selection process is fuzzy and unscientific. I didn’t go for the cheapest possible prices or the most expensive or necessarily a consistent level of price (though most of them are from Giant). Prices change through the season and I did not keep that in mind, just tried to choose an average. Some of the prices reflect the low end of organic produce costs, since our garden is an organic one, or farmer’s market/locally grown costs. I went for a higher price on tomatoes, for example, which brought the total up considerably, because I personally feel there’s a big difference between locally grown tomatoes that may cost more and cheap ones that are shipped unripe. Whereas with zucchini and cucumbers the origin makes less difference and so I used a “bargain” price.

Another reason the total jumped is the high price of basil and the amount we harvested from our plants. This might not be as worthwhile to someone who doesn’t like pesto.

Now, subtractions. Many people who argue that vegetable gardening is not monetarily worthwhile are including the start-up costs of a new garden: tools, fencing, soil enhancements, etc. I agree that these costs will eat up $387 pretty quickly. However, once you have the tools and the fence they will last you a long time (and you might still manage to break even that first year!). So let’s choose to make our subtractions based on the idea of an established garden. You may need some new soil enhancements, if you haven’t been composting: perhaps about $30. Another $30 or so for fertilizer. About $20 for seeds (remember that some of them can be used next year), and then another miscellaneous $20 for garden things you didn’t get last year. That brings your “profit” down well under $300, but it’s still not bad. Again, totally unscientific, and it is always possible to waste money on a garden, as I well know. But with careful planning and maintenance you should be able to save instead of spend.

You can also choose your crops based on what costs the most at the store, although I think the first priority should always be what you will most enjoy eating, and then what you will most enjoy growing. Carrots may be cheap to buy, and not always the easiest to grow in our soil, but if you really want to try purple carrots then try them! Just learn as much as you can about growing them successfully before you start; knowledge is one of the biggest cost-savers out there.

And no matter what you save or don’t save, you have also gained a lot just by being in the garden: getting exercise, learning about nature, knowing that you produced your own food. That’s worth a lot, whether it can be measured at a cash register or not.

(Photos by Katherine Lambert)

Sweet potatoes

One of the best parts of this year’s Harvest Festival for us at the Derwood demo garden (besides having enough mouse melons to hand out to everyone who wanted one – hurray!) was what a great sweet potato harvest we had. Actually, that’s nearly always the best part, though since this year was not a great potato year (no blight, but corn borers) we particularly appreciated seeing all those lovely red tubers (Georgia Jet variety) coming out of the ground. Especially when MG Barbara Knapp, who has the technique and patience to manage it, got a whole clump out at once still attached to the vine:

(Barbara’s photo) It weighed eight pounds! Our largest sweet potato this year weighed two and a half pounds, which is only half Barbara’s record of five, but really quite large enough.

We love digging for an audience, especially those kids who are curious about where their favorite foods come from. And actually we don’t mind at all explaining all day long that potatoes and sweet potatoes are from entirely different plant families, and that they grow differently, and are planted at different times of the year, potatoes in March from pieces of guaranteed disease-free seed potato (please do not use store-bought) in a trench gradually filled in with soil over growing plants which will die back in the summer, and sweet potatoes in late May or whenever it’s warm from plant slips on top of a loose bed of soil from which those lovely vines will spread out until frost. And yes, you can eat sweet potato stems and leaves (we just learned about the stems this time around from our visitors).

Here’s Barbara showing off her viney garden:

(photo: Katherine Lambert) No, those are zinnias over to the left, but sweet potatoes have nice flowers too. You can’t really see it in the middle of the vines, but the original slips were planted inside a cage of hardware cloth buried several inches in the ground to keep out mice and voles. And lo, when we dug up the tubers that had grown just outside the cage, they had been chewed partially away. I think our resident chipmunks were having a feast as well, even inside the cage. But it does a good job keeping out most furry pests. Insects are not much of a problem.

The cage was an oval about five feet long, and the whole garden area is about eight by ten feet for six plants, but if you’ve got less space you can still grow a plant or two and get a nice harvest in the fall. You can grow sweet potatoes in a pot! And they’re pretty. Nice groundcover, if temporary.

Barbara says have a sweet potato. You know you want to.

Fish pepper harvest

Fish peppers are a gorgeous addition to either a vegetable garden or an ornamental bed, with their variegated foliage and multi-colored fruit, and as an African-American heirloom of the Chesapeake region, they’re a real local specialty as well.

We grew them not too successfully in the Derwood demo garden this year (I foolishly tucked both seedling plants into places where they’d get as little sun as possible. Hey, the next-door plants were shorter then…) but those I had in my home garden did wonderfully. Anticipating cold weather, I got in the harvest, some of which looked like this:

Then I put most of the peppers (which are in the middle range of hotness, by the way) in the food dehydrator and let it run. Good for clearing the sinuses! Here’s the end product:

And much more where that came from! Enough to keep us warm all winter, whether it’s fish or something else that needs heating up.

The Fall 2009 issue of Washington Gardener has an interview with heirloom gardener Michael Twitty in which he extols the virtues of fish peppers, and much more. Really beautiful in your garden, and delicious too.

Grow It, Decorate It, Eat It

Nature gives us wonderful decorations in each season! Autumn is ushered in with chrysanthemums and cornstalks but the ornaments are pumpkins and gourds. I love them in all their varieties. I especially like moonshine pumpkins. These white pumpkins are a perfect representation of the harvest moon. I look at them and my mind conjures up a witch with her black cat riding her broomstick across the moonlit Halloween sky while my children below scurry door-to-door in their scary trick-or-treat costumes. And after it is all over, the pumpkins are baked into delicious pies and breads for the Thanksgiving holiday. Pumpkins and gourds are a great addition to every garden.

No, I did not grow all of these. They are courtesy of the University of Maryland variety trials at the Western Maryland Research and Education Center.

Winter Squash

Below are photographs of our butternut and spaghetti squash harvest. They are a couple of my favorite types of more than two dozen common varieties of winter squash. They are prolific, easy to grow, and very nutritious. They are called winter squash because when stored properly, they will last a long time and are a staple of our winter diet. Before storing them we rinse them in water to which we add a few drops of chlorine. We then store them in bins in a cool dry location. The garage usually works fine. They are so easy to eat by just splitting them, removing the seeds and roasting them in the oven or microwave. Spooning the cooked flesh out of the rind and serving with butter, salt, and pepper turn them into taste sensations. But they are also great in casseroles and pies. Flesh colors of winter squash range the spectrum from pale yellow to deep orange for a visual sensation. We believe that squashes are the staff of life and every garden needs a variety of them.

Late blight- will it return next year?

Over the Labor Day weekend I had to pull out the 22 tomato plants in my home garden that were infected with late blight. I harvested the green tomatoes, stuffed the plants in large plastic bags and put them out with the trash.

A number of my neighbors and co-workers in Howard Co. had tomato plants that succumbed to this wicked disease. This summer, Home and Garden Information Center staff communicated with dozens of home gardeners across the state who reported late blight symptoms on their tomato plants.

I recently spoke with Karen Rane, Director of the Plant Diagnostic Lab at the U of MD. She said that the fungus-like pathogen that causes late blight- Phytopthora infestans– could only survive the winter on living host tissue. Tomato and potato plants die with the first hard frost, but pieces of un-harvested potato could remain in the soil. It’s very important that all tomato and potato plants, especially potato tubers, be removed and discarded.

So will we see a repeat of this problem next year? Very unlikely, because three factors must be present at the same time and place- the host plant (potato or tomato); cool to mild, wet weather; and lots of disease spores. In 2009,large numbers of infected Southern-grown transplants were shipped into MD and other states for sale to home gardeners. Spores were blown around to new host plants and the disease spread from garden to garden.

There is no need to sterilize stakes and cages. It’s always a good idea to rotate crops if you have the room in your garden. But it’s ok to plant tomatoes in the same spot next year if that’s the only good spot you have.

Read this excellent list of FAQs from Meg McGrath, Plant Pathologist at Cornell University.

Vegetable love

It was great to have so many people visiting our vegetable garden at the August 29 open house. Please come see us again on October 3 and 4, Saturday and Sunday, from 11 to 4, for the Harvest Festival. This is a great event through the entire Agricultural Farm History Park, with activities for kids and adults that you can read about at the park site. The Master Gardeners will be there to answer your gardening questions and we’ll have fun games and crafts for the kids as well, and I hope lots of vegetables and flowers and insects for you to look at. (Also check out our neighbors, next fenced area over from our garden, the trial garden of the National Capital Dahlia Society; come on Saturday and they should have spectacular bouquets on sale for great prices.)

Although it’s quite possible to keep a vegetable garden going late into the fall and even through the winter with protection, we give ourselves a break in the demo garden and let things wind down beginning in October, with final clean-up in November. Through the season we enjoy lots of the products of our garden, and while we invariably have disappointments, we also have favorites, veggies that go on the YES WE MUST GROW THAT AGAIN list. Here are two of mine, which I highlight because in one way they’re total opposites, but have a certain determination and vigor in common.

Now, English majors take note, I am aware that when Andrew Marvell wrote “My vegetable love should grow/Vaster than empires and more slow” it was a mere metaphor, and in fact although he did visit Italy in the 1640s I think the vast vegetable he would have encountered there would have been the cucuzzi gourd illustrated by Jon in his last post, and not yet its successor in the native cuisine, the squash known as zucchetta, zucchino rampicante, or tromboncino. (The cucuzzi or cucuzza is also called zucca a tromba, or so I gather from William Woys Weaver’s excellent 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From. Names are very confusing. So are botanical and culinary histories, so I apologize to anyone I’ve been baffling by mixing up these vegetables this year!)

And I wouldn’t say the zucchetta grows slowly, either. In fact, turn around and it’s grown bigger on you.

(photos by Barbara Knapp)

It is a tasty squash, though, and fun to grow if you have the space. It grows well up a trellis if you speak to it persuasively, and keep coaxing it in the right direction, though really it would prefer to spread out horizontally across your entire garden and smother your eggplants and bush beans and then grow up the trellis you really meant for fall peas. The fruits will curl a little as they hang and a lot if they lie on the ground. Next year we’ll grow it on the tall fence where the scarlet runner beans are this year. I don’t know where the scarlet runner beans will go, but I do know the zucchetta has to be kept well away from the exterior deer fence, because it’s attempted to grow through it several times this year – not just vines but fruits – and the extractions have been… interesting.

On the opposite end of the size scale is the tiny-fruited plant we’ve been calling Mexican sour gherkin because that’s how the seed was sold to me.

(photo by Heather Powers)

However, I learned a new name for it the other day, again from William Woys Weaver (a wonderful lecture he gave on heirloom vegetables at the Monticello Heritage Harvest Festival). The plant, which is related to cucumbers and similar in taste, is actually native to Mexico and Central America, and one of the names for it in Spanish is sandia di raton, or mouse melon. It does look very much like a miniature watermelon, the sort you might serve to mice. So that is what I’m calling it from now on.

It’s a crispy, juicy snack direct off the vine, good in salads, good for pickling (I haven’t tried that yet because I never end up with enough left over, but this is what I hear). The vines, with leaves just like those on a cucumber plant but tiny and less rough, are vigorous but not far-rambling, and don’t seem to be affected by the wilt that devastated all the true cucumbers in the garden. I’ve never seen an insect on them except for bees on the flowers. They’re attractive plants and next year we are growing them close to the path where we can show them off.

Read William Woys Weaver on mouse melons here.

Come early to the Harvest Festival on Saturday, October 3, and I’ll try to have some mouse melons for you to snack on. Please do not bring your mice.